New Medieval Books: The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey Through Imaginary Medieval Worlds

The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey Through Imaginary Medieval Worlds

By Larisa Grollemond and Bryan C. Keene

J. Paul Getty Museum
ISBN: 97816067581

The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey Through Imaginary Medieval Worlds aims to discover the many reasons why the Middle Ages have proven so flexible and applicable to a variety of modern times from the 18th to the 21st centuries. These “medieval” worlds are often the perfect terrain for exploring contemporary cultural concerns and anxieties, and say much more about the time and place in which they were created than about the actual conditions of the medieval period. With over 140 color illustrations, from sources ranging from 13th-century illuminated manuscripts to contemporary movies and video games, and a foreword by game of Thrones costume designer Michele Clapton, fantasy of the middle ages will surprise and delight enthusiasts and scholars alike. This title is published to accompany a exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center from June 21 to September 11, 2022.

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Arthur Rackham, The Waiting Maid Sprang Down First and Maid Maleen Followed in Other Tales of the Brothers Grimm: A New Translation, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Translated by Mrs. Edgar Lucas, London, 1917. University of California Library, Los Angeles Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, PT2281.G38 K5 EI, p. 59 Little Brother and Little Sister: and other stories. Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

Read an excerpt from fantasy of the middle ages

beyond the binary

Ideas about gender—identity, expression, and roles—and about sexuality vary by place and time. Binaries such as masculine/feminine or heterosexual/homosexual present only a partial view of this complex aspect of human identity. Some of the examples in this book, both from the Middle Ages and later medievalism, reveal the persistence of negative stereotypes, especially regarding women and queer people. Many of those people lived fuller lives and had greater agency than text and images made primarily by and for cisgender heterosexual men might suggest. Throughout the medieval world, homosocial activities between groups of men or women could sometimes develop into romantic or sexual relationships. Similarly, those who were assigned a sex at birth could choose to express their gender in myriad ways, dressing in clothing traditionally expected of one gender or performing tasks regulated by their gender identity.

Jean Pichore, detail of Saint Joan of Arc on horseback in Les Vies des femmes célèbres, by Antoine Dufour, Paris, France, 1504–6. Nantes, Musée – Thomas Dobrée, Ms. 17, fol. 76v – © C. Hémon / Musée Dobrée – Grand Patrimoine of Loire-Atlantique

Figures that come to mind include Mulan, who disguises herself as a soldier instead of her father, and Joan of Arc (circa 1412-1431), which we’ll talk about later. We cannot know whether an individual would have identified with terms developed in later periods, including heterosexual or homosexual, but also more specifically lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirited, and other gender nonconforming or nonconforming binaries. identities and sexualities (abbreviated as LGBTQIA2+). History is littered with numerous examples of individuals who defied social or religious norms, a fact that fantasy medievalisms have been relatively slow to embrace. We especially reject the vile and damaging statements towards the queer and trans communities made by some of the popular writers mentioned in this volume.

The expectations that shaped images of women in the Middle Ages, both fictional and historical, have often been revised but ultimately reinforced with almost every new narrative. In post-medieval fantasy one can find women warriors, queens who rule unapologetically, and princesses who refused to marry, but even these are constrained by a complex set of gender-based expectations that ultimately adhere to gender patterns. patriarchal. Take the limited example of female knights in the Middle Ages. One of the most famous and controversial figures is Joan of Arc, a peasant woman who aided the French against the English at a decisive moment in the Hundred Years’ War, but later faced trial on charges of witchcraft, heresy and dress like a man. She was executed at the age of nineteen for her gender transgressions and today she is revered as a trans hero. Women who tried to lead in the Middle Ages and in fantastical medievalisms have faced an uphill battle, despite their strong wills.

Mary Kay Dodson, Virginia Field costume sketch as Morgan Le Fay in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 1948 (Paramount Pictures). Gouache and pencil on paper with fabric swatch. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund, M.85.144.15
Digital image © 2021 Museum Associates/LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, NY

In game of Thrones, while there are several examples of powerful women on the show exerting influence using their feminine wiles and conforming to traditional standards of feminine beauty, including the dragon queen, Daenerys Targaryen; the direwolf queen of the north, Sansa Stark; and the lion queen, Cersei Lannister (who drops the surname of her husband, the late King Robert Baratheon); it is Ser Brienne of Tarth and Lady Arya Stark of Winterfell who are truly pioneering figures in this regard. In the fictional world of Westeros, Ser Brienne in particular not only takes on the chivalric values, titles, and weaponry of a knight, but also struggles against the gender binary in her physical appearance that is deeply troubling to the other characters (cisgender, straight, and queer alike) with whom he has meaningful relationships.

A gender bending counterexample to Monty Python’s Arthurian tale finds Lancelot violently spilling the blood of wedding guests in an attempt to rescue a “princess”—whose missive the knight found—but who turns out to be frail, the genderqueer Prince Herbert, who does not want to get married but to dedicate himself to study and music. Such images flatten the expectation of gender-based behavior that excludes any non-normative examples. Knights who do not bravely charge into battle and women interested in weapons are out of step with this binary.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail Movie Book, 1975 (Python Pictures) © 1974 National Film Trustee Company Ltd / Shapero Rare Books

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